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Health and Economic Crises Threaten Arab Funding for Research

DUBAI—In the wake of a drop in the price of oil and the economic pain inflicted by Covid-19 lockdowns, funding for research in Arab countries is due for a hit in the coming year.

On the positive side, scientists and science administrators think that slimmer funding may encourage more collaboration. They also see some universities establishing innovation funds around Covid-19 and hope that the pandemic will help the general public to see the value of scientific and medical research in the region.

Some areas, like health care and research relating to Covid-19, may benefit from the global pandemic. But in general, the virus’s impact on academic research looks to be vast and could linger for years to come.

Research and development are critical to any economy’s growth, yet across the Arab world—even in the wealthier Gulf Cooperation Council countries—government support for research lags below the levels seen in other countries with strong research outputs.

According to the World Bank, Arab countries spent, on average, just 0.5 to 1 percent of gross domestic product on research and development in 2018, the latest year for which figures are available. This stands in stark contrast with neighboring Israel, which spent 4.9 percent of GDP on research that year, the highest proportion of any developed country. Austria and Germany each devoted more than 3 percent of GDP to research, the highest shares in Europe. In the United Arab Emirates, the leader among Arab countries, the figure was only 1.3 percent.

Tougher Times Ahead

Now, according to experts, the region could be set for a fall.

In the oil-dependent Gulf states, the pressure on government spending as a result of the pandemic and lower oil prices will continue to restrain investment in research, says Sally Jeffery, global education network leader at the professional services firm PwC Middle East.

Governments may hope the private sector can spend more on research, says Jeffery, “and some of the larger companies, such as oil and gas, might.” But in general, she thinks research spending “will be depressed, at least until the economy rebounds and GDP moves back into positive growth.”

Hassan Bazzi, associate dean for research and advancement at Texas A&M University at Qatar, agrees that there could be tougher times ahead.

Bazzi’s university is one of several that receive funding from the Qatar National Research Fund. When the coronavirus hit, the engineering campus redirected around a quarter of its funding to the crisis, applying its resources wherever possible.

“Universities worldwide are preparing for a bad year or two. We are in a better situation here, but still, the budgets will go down. No question.”

Hassan Bazzi  
Associate dean for research and advancement at Texas A&M University at Qatar

“We did an internal research funding program,” Bazzi says, “and we gave funding to seven projects ranging from engineering to science, and even to liberal arts because, remember, combatting Covid-19 is a full-fledged activity that would have to include everybody, from social behavior to our day-to-day activity, to the small gadgets that we use.”

Working with the Ministry of Public Health in Qatar and the Red Crescent, the university used its 3D-printing labs to make face shields to give to volunteers in Qatar, as well as accessories to help with ventilators.

So far, Covid-19 has had only a “minor effect” on Texas A&M at Qatar’s research funding in general, at least in the short term, Bazzi says. “However, we live in Qatar; the economy of Qatar is impacted and the budgets in Qatar have been reduced,” he says. “Now of course, if the budget cut remains for the next few years, that’s a different story.”

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Decreased enrollments, both in Qatar and at Texas A&M’s home campus in the United States, will be inevitable, Bazzi says, with many students preferring to wait rather than spend money for what is likely to be heavily online learning in the coming academic year. Travel restrictions will also have an impact on revenue and, in turn, funding for research, he says.

“Universities worldwide are preparing for a bad year or two. We are in a better situation here, but still, the budgets will go down. No question.”

A researcher at Texas A&M University at Qatar. The engineering campus has redirected about a quarter of its research funding to the coronavirus crisis (Photo: Courtesy of Texas A&M University at Qatar).
A researcher at Texas A&M University at Qatar. The engineering campus has redirected about a quarter of its research funding to the coronavirus crisis (Photo: Courtesy of Texas A&M University at Qatar).

Push for More Collaboration

Jeffery, at PwC Middle East, and Bazzi both say the economic pressures will increase the need for researchers to collaborate across institutions and countries.

Texas A&M at Qatar is already heavily engaged with Asian, European and American institutions, says Bazzi, but such collaborations will become even more necessary. “It’s always an opportunity for cross collaboration, even between our faculty,” he says.

Bringing researchers together across the Arab region, however, is not so simple. “In the GCC, there are fewer databases on the research community and less transparency, and sharing research funding across institutions can be challenging,” Jeffery explains.

Hani al-Husseini, a professor of mathematics at Cairo University, knows this issue firsthand. “Arab governments do not encourage cooperation between research institutions,” he says. “For example, we face difficulties in obtaining security and bureaucratic approvals to host foreign lecturers.”

The challenges could also have repercussions on research staffs. International faculty may leave the region, as life for expatriates becomes more challenging, with many suffering large pay cuts or even job losses. (See a related article, “Most Arab-World Researchers Want to Leave, a New Survey Finds.”)

“For a period of time there could be a brain drain and a void in deep research expertise in the region, particularly in some of the emerging sciences,” explains Jeffery.

Shrinking budgets will also limit research opportunities for young postdocs who will increasingly have to look overseas for funding and strong supervision to continue their work. “If they don’t find it, as competition will be tough, they may abandon their plans to pursue research permanently,” says Jeffery.

Such an outcome would constitute a missed opportunity for countries like Saudi Arabia, “which is looking desperately to diversify its economy, move towards a knowledge centric economy and create more jobs through innovation and entrepreneurship,” she says.

“All other fields will probably lose out to health care for the next five to ten years.”

Sally Jeffery  
Global education network leader at PwC Middle East

Nashwa Issa, an associate professor of physics at Al-Neelain University in Khartoum, also worries that brain drain could be a problem. “I think researchers are already migrating, but tight funding will make rates double.”

Egyptian professors share the same concern. Al-Husseini, of Cairo University, says he is “not optimistic about the future of research.” Many of the outstanding young students being groomed to join the university are instead leaving for foreign institutions that offer enticing scholarships. Government funding for research “is very little,” he says, and he doesn’t expect that to change. “The state is not convinced that scientific research is one of its tasks.”

Winners and Losers

Not all areas of research will suffer, however. Areas that may see gains include education technology, spurred on by the need to improve online access to education and improve Arabic content, Jeffery suggests. She also foresees strong investment in health fields, especially into research on digital health solutions and epidemiological research.

“All other fields will probably lose out to health care for the next five to ten years,” she says.

In the United Arab Emirates, health has been a major beneficiary of funding during the Covid-19 crisis.

Al Jalila Foundation, which supports local medical research, has allocated $817,000 this year toward Covid-19. Usually, the foundation focuses on five key areas: cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease, mental health and diabetes, all urgently needed in the region. However, its scientific advisory committee decided this year was the year to focus on the global pandemic.

Abdulkareem Al Olama, Al Jalila Foundation’s chief executive, says the response to the call for applications was unprecedented, with 91 for this one area alone, compared to around 120 across the usual five subjects.

“Per topic, this funding is much more than usual,” he says. “Around 25 percent more.” However, the work on the other five areas of research continues, he emphasizes, with more than $2 million being spent this year on the five priority areas. “People are still dying of cancer and heart disease, diabetes, so we can’t forget the other things,” he explains. (See a related article, “Patterns of Disease Are Changing in the Arab World.”)

The frequency of pandemics is increasing, says Al Olama, noting the emergence of two others—severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS—since 2003. Like Covid-19, those diseases were also caused by coronaviruses. In turn, medical research must adapt. Al Jalila’s scientific advisory panel “will sit again in 2021 and reassess,” says Al Olama, “but we hope by then this will all be over.”

Changing times often lead to creative responses, however, says Jeffery, and positive outcomes may yet follow.

“As long as GDP is declining and there is pressure on governments to fund growth, then research that has a long lead time and is difficult to quantify in terms of cost-benefit will likely lose out,” she says. “But I remain optimistic. Researchers are creative and determined folk, and they love to collaborate, so this could be a healthy rebooting of the way research is funded and organized across the region.”

Anwar Fath Al-Rahman Ahmed Dafa-Alla, a professor of computer and information security and founder and chair of the Sudanese Researchers Initiative, also remains hopeful. Beyond health care, he foresees growth in disciplines such as remote working, supply chain management, e-learning, cybersecurity, cloud storage, and social research related to disasters, as well as psychological research.

“The impact, in my opinion, is positive,” Dafa-Alla says, “because governments and societies have finally paid attention to the need to support and fund scientific research—the only way out of this pandemic, and what may come in the future.”


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